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Alison Gowans
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April 29, 2024 – Cedar Rapids Public Library 2024 Artist in Residence Akwi Nji's work at the library has focused on the power of books, the written word, and the intersections of words, poetry, and painting. 

“I was previously a language arts teacher,” she said. “Some of the books that are on the most banned lists recently are books former students are now, still reaching out to me to say ‘Thanks for teaching from these books, they changed my life.’ I just need to make sure I’m continuing the conversation.” 

Naturally, we wanted to ask her about some of her favorite books. In response, she shared this book list, using the prompt, "Books that left a lasting impression."

Browse the full list below, and put titles that are part of the library's collection on hold by clicking on their covers.

"Where the Red Fern Grows," by Wilson Rawls

This is the first book I remember feeling enthralled by. I was in 8th grade and would read it as I rode the city bus home from school. On the day that I was close to the end of the book, because I could sense that it wouldn’t be a pleasant ending, I held off on finishing it until I got home. At home, I went straight to my room, got under the covers, and let the tears flow as I finished reading. Mom came home from work and made dinner, but I stayed in bed through the night and cried myself to sleep. I’ve read it since then and still feel a ping at the loss in the end.

"A Separate Peace," by John Knowles

In high school, this was one of the few books with a male protagonist with whom I felt I could relate. In fact, I could relate to both Phineas and Gene. The scene when Phineas breaks the swimming record and doesn’t feel a desire for his schoolmates to know … well, it stuck with me. And the terrible tragedy, a manifestation of the feelings any of us might have had, that was somehow simultaneously explainable and inexplicable. 

"Light in August," by William Faulkner

As a sophomore in college, on my way to a degree in English, I enjoyed deeply analyzing books. I kept a thorough journal of my reflections and analysis and was beyond prepared for the final essay in the class. After turning in my essay, I was called into the Teacher Assistant’s office and was asked if I’d inadvertently included analysis, uncited, that was not mine. I explained it was all my own thoughts. He explained the level of analysis was beyond what would be typical for my age. I showed him my notebook and there were no questions after that. Anyone who picks up this book might find a concurrent reading of Toni Morrison’s novels would provide colorful points of juxtaposition and comparison.

"The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison

Eventually, when I became a teacher at Washington High School, this was one of the books my students and I most enjoyed analyzing together. I still receive random messages from some students – now well into their 30s – thanking me for introducing this work to them and the conversations and awareness it generated. It remains one of my favorite novels for Morrison’s poetic, breathtaking minimalism paired with a fierce light shone on the many devastating social constructs of our human existence.

"Caucasia," by Danzy Senna

This coming of age story about two sisters and their Black father and White mother, set in the turbulent 1970s, is personally familiar and poetically written. It’s a story about identity, longing and belonging, loss and connection to those with whom we’re closest. It’s one of those books I recommended to dozens of people after first reading it. Powerful, delightful, and sharp.

"The Black Maria," by Aracelis Girmay

Girmay’s poetry (and prose) speaks to my core. Her lines flow like water, it ebbs and flows and finds places to settle or surge. She manages to tread lightly on the quicksand-air of heavy themes like police violence against Black people while making thunder with her words. One poem is inspired by actual events experienced by Neil deGrasse Tyson, a black astrophysicist who was “Confronted by police on more than one occasion when he was on his way to study stars.”

Additional works that have drawn me in to a deeper, truer, stronger version of myself – and which might do the same for others – are "The Selected Works of Audre Lorde," edited by Roxane Gay, and "Cries of the Spirit," by Marilyn Sewell.


Spring 2024 Artist in Residence Programs: 

Nji has several Artist in Residence programs still to come this spring. They may be found on the library’s online calendar,, and in the spring issue of OPEN+ magazine, available at both library locations. Pieces created during the programs may be featured as part of Nji’s “The People’s Poetics” project in one of the library’s gallery spaces this summer. 

Craft Your Cover 

Book covers can draw us into a story or remain with us long after the details of the story have faded. Create a unique art piece using recycled materials inspired by the cover of your favorite book. We’ll provide the materials, while you bring the book or a picture of the cover and join others in your community for this program.  

Friday, May 17, 3-4 pm, Downtown Library, Beems A 


Text Threads

Every day we write our stories through the text messages we send each other. Nji will guide you as you create poetry from your personal text threads and collaborate on a mural. 

Saturday, May 4, 10-11 am 

Downtown Library Beems Auditorium 


Cover to Cover 

During this drop-in program, visit with the artist and view her artistic process as she creates a book cover inspired by her work and the connections she’s made with patrons during the library’s residency program. 

Thursday, May 2, 5:30-6:30 pm 

Downtown Library, Commons 


The People's Poetics Gallery Opening 

Celebrate the grand opening of “The People’s Poetics” project featuring work by Nji and library patrons. Visit with the artist and explore the convergence of art and poetry – of individual story and the stories in the library—in this new exhibit. 

Saturday, May 25, 10-11 am 

Downtown Library, Third Floor Gallery